I finally made it to India! Suddenly, I am both given respect and care way beyond what is comfortable, and am laughed at for the way I talk and act. Two days into my international adventure and I am already gulping down a novel culture and it's rich language.
I am also learning that uneducated prediction is essentially useless. I thought everyone would be in Punjabi suits, and sit in each others living rooms but I now no that most people on the street wear jeans and a t-shirt, and everyone sits in each others bedrooms. Also contrary to my expectations was the tolerance I found here for transgender women, or Hijras.
I assumed there would be more stigma in India when it came to the transgender community. In the US, we consider ourselves progressive and a leader in equality, yet our treatment of the LGBTQ community is still horrendous. India has never been known for its women's rights, and from that I assumed that anyone besides straight males must be at a disadvantage, which, for the record, is true… kind of.
I began researching Hijras in India when I saw and spoke with a transgender woman at a hindu temple. My host mom (Auntie from here out) shoved through the crowd of people surrounding the woman just to get a hug before we left the temple. Other people waited through the line, just to drop to the floor and massage the woman's legs, or to stand beside her fanning her face. There was a man who merely stood upright and acted as her human armrest.
As each person approached the hijra, they would give a slight bow in greeting then they would solicit her advice, and blessing. She would respond and people would thank and bless her for her favor. Often people would leave sobbing. Not tears of sadness, anger, or frustration, but not necessarily of happiness either. It was like people were crying out of relief that they had a new direction to go in.
As we left, I asked Auntie if transgender women were respected like this often, and she replied "They are very respected. They are close to god." Here I was the only supposedly "progressive" person in the area, and I was shocked to see people swarming to a transgender woman for advice, solace, and blessings.
After researching a bit more, I found that the reality is a bit removed from the display at the hindu temple. Hijra's are often forced into sexual slavery or left begging on the streets because of their gender identity. Many live in a sort of hierarchy, the young or "Chela's" beg or are prostituted out and they give much of their profits to mid-level Hijra's, who then report to a Guru who is the matriarch of the little community. Sometimes, these women are hired as a spectacle at weddings or other celebrations. According to the New York Times, in their article "The peculiar status of Hijra's in India" there is a kind of awkward love of these women. When groups of these women arrive, there is a brief silence followed by a happy laughter.
This reality, however, isn't how it has always been. It seems that this more awkward respect or worse, volatile discrimination, only arrived with the white men. Before the British colonized India, these women were seen as demi-gods. They were believed to have the power to bless and to curse and as a result people revered them and sometimes even feared them. In Hindu mythology, there is story after story of people who cross dressed, underwent gender changes, or even violently self-castrated or de-breasted themselves in the name of their gods and as a result were deified themselves. Often times these characters would become more creative or beautiful as a result of their change. Even deities such as Aravan, the god which Hijra's dedicate themselves to upon their gender change, is transgender or gender fluid themselves and their role in hindu mythology set the tone for Hijras' role as disciples to those gods.
This respect and reverence was tainted and broken as soon as the British came in with their discriminatory laws against "carnal sexual behavior against natural order." Somehow we have touted ourselves as the progressive ones?
I'm not saying that before the British came, life for Hijra's or other people in the LGBTQ community was good, or that India had a perfect system. There was still discrimination, sexuality changes were less accepted than gender changes, for sure, and even as a Hijra, you were not equal. You still had your place and you were meant to stay there. Neither am I saying that we should deify people because of their differences; I don't believe that our born or assumed traits have anything to do with god's favor or our ability channel that power. Nevertheless, I think the high and mighty Americans, British, or otherwise "enlightened" could take the time to learn at least one thing from the Hindu idea of the Hijra: maybe there is a little bit of god in everyone.
Elianna DeSota is a young teacher who is obsessed with deep diving into new cultures and ideas. Right now she is on a journey to discover more about India and herself before jumping into the next chapter of her life.